Four Observations about Democratic Anxieties (or their Absence) in Latin America

First Observation.

Anxieties of Democracy: Generalizing from the Global North?

Anxieties of democracy. This phrase is reminiscent of the kinds of conversations that Latin Americanists had in the 1980s: would the turn to democracy survive the economic crisis? Would citizens overcome the disenchantment with democracy that was certain to spiral as democratic governments faced limited autonomy to pursue either independent economic and socioeconomic policies (given international constraints) or human rights policies that held prior regimes to account (for fear of provoking a military coup)? In turn, concerns about representation and participation were voiced as many were concerned about the concentration of executive powers in delegative democracies, weak party systems (especially in Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia), and the collapse of longer-standing party systems (in Peru and Venezuela, in particular). Moreover, right-oriented governments, some of which nominally had left credentials, seemed to disregard concerns about inequality, poverty, and redistribution. Surveys from this period highlighted that citizens had very low trust in democratic institutions. Thus, in the 1980s and early 1990s, there were anxieties of democracy—raising questions not only about whether democracy would provide channels of representation; but also if democracy would survive at all.

These issues are echoed today in advanced industrial democracies. The concerns about rising inequality, representation, and limits on influence, among others, have been heightened in the United States and Europe—less because of the postmaterial concerns that earlier scholars noted, and more because of the rising influence of global financial capital, rising inequality, party systems that are both polarized and hamstrung, and so on.

I thus pose a question: are there really anxieties of democracy today throughout the world? I urge us to adopt a much more differentiated approach. In fact, I argue that third wave democracies in much of the Global South, with significant advances, seem more stable and representative today than they were two decades prior. I am often a naysayer in optimistic conversations about Latin America’s democratic advances, which tend to focus on formal democratic institutions and their functions. But it seems imperative to have a sense of recent historical trajectories—to remember some of the ways in which democracy does not produce anxiety, but a sense of welcome surprise in third wave Latin American democracies.

1. Time/Stability. The Latin American region (and the world as a whole) has more longstanding electoral democracies than ever before. While there have been setbacks (such as the autogolpes/self-coups in Peru and Guatemala; mobilizations to force presidents to step down in Bolivia; challenges to procedural democracy in Venezuela; and corruption scandals in Brazil), it is nonetheless important to highlight relative regime stability.

2. Party Systems. Party systems have in fact shown some surprising successes, including new party systems that emerged out of polarized civil wars (as in El Salvador); party institutionalization in party systems that were once seen as “feckless” (as in Brazil); and divided and collapsed parties retaking center stage (as in Argentina and Peru).

3. Representation. Representation has clearly increased in many ways. Ideologically speaking, the right no longer has a lock on electoral office, as seemed the case in the 1980s and 1990s. Various left parties assumed office as part of the “Left Turn,” although with significant policy variation across these left parties. Institutional reforms have increased the representation of indigenous and/or female elected officials. Ethnic inclusion is now part of the political debate, with elections of indigenous leaders, constitutional reforms, and social policy. Decentralization reforms allowed for participation at the local level. Participatory budgeting made important headway—particularly (but not only) in Brazil.

4. Economies. Despite the global financial crisis and a following dip in 2009, economies are doing better now than they have since the lost decade of the 1980s. Commodity booms for the last several years have generated the foreign reserves that states so keenly lacked in prior decades. FDI has increased. Inflation (or hyperinflation) is down, at least for the moment. Poverty has declined, and even inequality has declined on average since 2002 (especially in Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela), according to ECLAC’s 2012 Social Panorama of Latin America.1

5. Policies. Policies are more responsive than during the neoliberal reform period.

Second-order reforms, including conditional cash transfers, have softened the harsh reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. (Bolsa Familia in Brazil and Progresa in Mexico are among the best known.) And public social spending has increased through 2010, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of social spending. While there is a long way to go, the contrast with the 1980s is undisputed.

6. Human Rights. Human rights abuses on the part of the state have never been lower. Prior military leaders are no longer immune from trials. Even in Guatemala, which continues to face important human rights abuses, there have been breathtaking developments—particularly the ruling on May 10, 2013, that declared General Rios Montt (who oversaw the worst human rights abuses of the country’s history) guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He is to serve an eighty-year sentence in a high security prison. The autonomy of the court to engage in this kind of ruling, coupled with the social movements and experts who mobilized to make this case, was unfathomable ten years ago.

7. Public Opinion. Public opinion is supportive of democracy—even if their trust in democratic institutions remains low!

In short, the region did experience anxieties of democracy in the 1980s and 1990s.

In this millennium, however, I would not say that there are anxieties of democracy as much as anxieties in democracy. People do wonder if democracy can address the pressing issues of our time; however, recognizing that it cannot always do so, they still see improvements relative to the repression, inequalities, and lack of representation in the past. Obviously, this is truer in some cases than in others.

Second Observation.

 Anxieties in Democracies: A Look at Latin America

Though democracy seems to generate less anxiety than it did at the moment of democratic transition or economic crisis, this does not mean that there are not important anxieties in democracies. These include:

Violence and Citizen Security. Concerns about violence are consistently cited at the top of most concerns expressed by citizens. While citizens used to express concerns about the economy (relating, for example, to employment or inflation), violence now often surpasses these material concerns. These are not necessarily concerns about state abuse, per se; rather, they are about the extraordinary rise in homicidal violence that has emerged in the context of the new democracies. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have amongst the highest per capita homicide rates in the world. While we hear a great deal about Mexico and Brazil, these concerns are also (if not more) intensely experienced by Central American citizens, and find additional echo in Venezuela and the Caribbean. Fears are high in many other countries as well, including Costa Rica, Chile and Argentina, though their per capita rates are not comparable. In some of these cases, the rule of law institutions are not only incapable of addressing these concerns—they are complicit in the process.

Illicit Economies. Related to the last point, the last fifteen years have seen the dramatic expansion of the illicit economy. I am not referring primarily to the longstanding and significant informal sector that is selling CDs, t-shirts, fruit, and other petty goods; this sector has great anxieties about income, lack of insurance, and self-sufficiency.

Rather, I am talking in particular about the expansion of transnational illicit trade in drugs, arms, money laundering, and other goods. The drug trade in particular has changed routes and thus we have seen the significant expansion of the drug trade from the Andes and the Caribbean into Central America and Mexico (although it is not limited to these countries—witness Brazil and Venezuela, in particular).

Trust in Institutions. Surveys of the region have shown that while support for democracy is high, trust in institutions—including, parties, legislatures, executives, and police—is low.

While citizens strongly support democracy, they do not have faith that democratic institutions will resolve problems fairly, equitably, and accountably.

Enduring Inequalities. Theorists since the nineteenth century have noted that formal political equalities defined by democracy can and do coincide with the deep inequalities generated by capitalism. These inequalities raise important questions of how to effect a more just society. These questions remain on the table in Latin America, especially since inequalities remain an important challenge, even with recent improvements in the macroeconomy, inequality rates, and poverty. “The simple average of figures for the eighteen countries on which relatively recent data are available shows that the wealthiest 10 percent of the population receives 32 percent of total income while the poorest 40 percent receives 15 percent of total income” (ECLAC, 2012, 22). Enduring inequalities remain along class, gender, ethnic, racial, geographic, and generational lines. Moreover, while poverty has declined significantly (by almost fourteen percentage points) since 1999, its patterns of disproportionately affecting youth and the less educated poverty have remained quite similar. Indeed, children comprise half of all the indigent population, and about 45 percent of the nonindigent poor, according to ECLAC’s report (2012, 19). Indigenous people, moreover, continue to experience high levels of extreme poverty, limited access to social services, and high levels of discrimination despite greater voice in national and local institutions.

State Capacity to Deliver. Guillermo O’Donnell long ago noted that neoliberal reforms were hollowing out Latin American states, leading to an uneven capacity to uphold citizen rights and deliver the public goods associated with citizenship.2 There are some striking exceptions (i.e., Bolsa Familia in Brazil and court decisions in Guatemala), however concern remains that the state does not reach citizens everywhere, particularly when we talk about the police providing security; the delivery of social services; implementing/sustaining institutional reforms; equal treatment of the poor, indigenous, and blacks; the persistence of clientelism; and so on. Decentralization efforts and respect for indigenous customary law in Bolivia provide two such examples of uneven state capacity to implement and defend these reforms: local power-holders subvert or capture democratic institutions, and governments disregard prior reforms and implement new layers on top of old ones. Thus a concern is not just about the inequality of voice and influence, but also about the porous and uneven quality of states that can implement policies and uphold those institutions. As a colleague recently emphasized at a conference, it is often in the last mile of delivery that states fail to reach citizens.

Sustainability. Finally, there should be an anxiety about what comes next when the commodity boom becomes a bust.

Third Observation.

Inequalities in Influence: Yes, but relative to what?

So where do inequalities and influence fit into this discussion? If there is greater confidence in democracy’s staying power, this does not mean that citizens presume that they have equal influence—or that representative democracies can govern effectively.

In Latin America, citizens, at the very least, perceive high levels of unfairness in the distribution of economic, political, and social goods, as well as hold high levels of distrust in political institutions. The following ECLAC report, based on Latinobarometer survey data, is worth quoting at length.


(ECLAC, 2012, 25)

These responses do not necessarily constitute a situation of “anxiety,” however, for one’s valence in responding to this question necessarily reflects one’s referent. Instead of assuming a better (perhaps even golden) age of democracy against which the current period is being compared, arguably, Latin Americans are comparing their mixed record today against their recent past, which was worse. Indeed, today’s mixed record is a decidedly imperfect improvement compared to harsh authoritarian rule, economic-crisis-ridden governments that had limited autonomy to shape economic policy, and the lost decade of the 1980s, which undercut savings, jobs, and pensions.

Influence is undoubtedly marred by deep inequalities, but that influence has improved over time. This does not excuse current governments and citizens from the responsibility to demand and achieve better governance; however, in Latin America, I see more hope in this respect than I did several years ago. Social movements and parties have advanced spaces for ethnic and gendered representation (although there is a long way to go and it will certainly be uneven). Governments have passed innovative social policy programs (although they are far from universalized or equally accessed). Parties have created roots in society and in some cases have developed programmatic positions. Even unpredictable populist candidates have acted differently in office than critics might have suspected (or feared)—see Presidents Evo Morales in Bolivia or Ollanta Humalla in Peru. There is much to do, but the trajectory is not downward.

Final Observation:

Anxieties about Physical Security and State Capacity in Latin America

Even if democracy seems stable and representation seems improved, this does not mean that citizens do not feel imperiled. This peril is less about the shortcomings of democracy (i.e., rising inequalities, ideological polarization, unbounded populism, or ineffective legislatures) and more about the ways in which violence is threatening citizens and raising uncertainty about how to lead one’s life. This violence, even where it is less visible, is pushing citizens out of the streets, off the buses, and into their homes—providing fewer opportunities to demand accountability from complicit or incapable state actors, limited resources to turn to the police (who are often complicit in the very crimes that are at issue), greater perverse incentives to demand authoritarian or extrajudicial actions (on the part of the police, courts, and fellow citizens), and increased pressures for the next generation to sidestep both the formal economy and formal political arenas. In turn, illicit actors are penetrating and hollowing out formal institutions (of military, courts, police, and commerce) in ways that should raise flags about the integrity of state institutions in many of the region’s new democracies.

While everyone is nominally affected by the violence, the poor are at greatest risk and yet have the least resources and protection from the state. They have disproportionately less influence in politics, in turn. While this is a national problem, it is one that is geographically and socioeconomically concentrated in certain places—making it “easier” for some wealthier (and often whiter) citizens both to ignore the extent of the problem and, in the meantime, to buy their own protection.

In this sense, one of the necessary ways to redress inequalities of influence (alongside new or more comprehensive social policies) is to provide the basic security that allows people to step out of their homes and assume their rights as citizens. It is a question not only of socioeconomic policy but also of state reform and action. This is the central question in much of Latin America, as it is in many cities around the world—including those in advanced industrial democracies. Without security, citizens cannot effectively exercise any of the other rights that we associate with representative democracy. In this regard, the right to security precedes (or at the very least is necessary to) the very civil, political, and social rights outlined by T. H. Marshall in his classic essay on citizenship rights and social class. Democratic officials, thus, need to find a way to democratically strengthen the very rule-of-law institutions that have historically repressed their citizens and that today are sometimes complicit in the violence. This is a tall task—perhaps even a paradoxical one. But the recent Guatemalan court ruling against Rios Montt reminds us that even the unimaginable is sometimes possible when people organize against all odds for what they believe is right.

  1. UN Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean (ECLAC). 2013. Social Panorama of Latin America, 2012. Santiago, Chile: United Nations Publication. Available online at:
  2. Guillermo O’Donnell. 1993. “On the State, Democratization and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Postcommunist Countries.” World Development 21:1355-1369.
About the Author
Deborah Yashar is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.